There’s no question Warner Bros stumbled out of the gate with the attempted MCU-rivaling comic book film universe. The so-called DCEU launched in 2013 with the luke-warmly received Man of Steel, a flawed but good-enough Superman movie that laid a solid foundation to build on. The underlying premise behind the movie was “how would a modern (as in, more cynical) world react to the arrival of a god-like alien?” Bringing new, similarly-powered heroes to orbit around the Superman character was presumably the plan, with Batman the next expected arrival.
That’s where things went south.
Instead of being patient, and releasing a stand-alone Batman movie, followed by a stand-alone Wonder Woman film, WB jumped to a movie featuring all three of their biggest heroes, banking on the long-standing fame of their big name characters to outweigh any particular familiarity to these cinematic versions. I defended the DCEU’s depiction of Superman, I defended the DCEU’s rushed approach to their universe, and I even defended Batman v Superman, the movie that basically threw a sabot into the whole machinery, arguing that it was flawed, but effective enough to be a foundation for the Justice League film to come.
The biggest movie of the new universe, Justice League, was a bland, forgettable, bomb of a movie. In hindsight, WB should have been patient.
Imagine an alternate universe where Man of Steel in 2013 was followed-up by The Batman in 2015, then Wonder Woman in 2016, then a movie in 2017 (let’s call it Trinity) that teamed the three of them up against Steppenwolf, only for their victory to be a hollow one as Darkseid invades in the cliffhanger ending and, I dunno, “kills” Superman or something. Then you can do Aquaman in 2018, Flash in 2019, then bring Superman back in Justice League 2020. That’s a seven year plan that might’ve resulted in the big, grand team-up movie grossing more than Despicable Me 3.
Of course WB didn’t start their cinematic universe until a year after the The Avengers released and crushed the box office. When the first Iron Man hit theaters in 2008, DC’s film division was peaking with Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight. By the time that trilogy ended in 2012, the final entry was beaten by The Avengers to the tune of $450mm to $623mm ($1b international vs $1.5b).
WB began in a hole and they reacted, not with calm patience but with panicked flailing.
All that said, there are positive signs that things are heading in the right direction. Wonder Woman‘s big success in 2017 at least hinted that audiences weren’t averse to DC, so much as the dark, stylized, and pseudo-artsy take on the movies that Zack Snyder had imposed. Aquaman‘s billion dollar haul a year later seems to have confirmed it. And while Shazam! failed to light up the box office, it was a critical hit and scored an “A” Cinemascore, which means those who did see it, loved it. It struggled with too much competition this Spring, notably from Captain Marvel and Endgame.
What’s next for the franchise that seems to finally have its head above water?
From the looks of things it’s a combination of soft-resets and a new approach to their universe. Interconnected stories seem to be on the back-burner, with stand-alone movies carrying the slate. Some upcoming films will share the same universe but others will be of “elseworlds” (what if?) variety…
This Joker is not the Joker last seen in Suicide Squad. So no jailhouse tats, no grill. This Elseworlds tale will be a crime movie and judging by early buzz it promises to score Joaquin Phoenix more than a few nominations. It’ll be interesting to see how WB handles the movie, since it’s not connected to any other movie they have announced, and in fact it openly contradicts a few of them too. If nothing else, a big reception for it will probably push them to greenlight more low-budget ($55mm) films as counter-programming to the MCU’s blockbuster appraoch.
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BIRDS OF PREY (2020)
There’s an actual “Suicide Squad” movie coming out in 2021 but it’s this spin-off of the original that will have more thematic connections to the 2016 hit. Consider this another in the DCEU shared universe though it’s unclear if any characters from other movies will make an appearance. What we do know is Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is the star and Ewan McGreggor’s Black Mask will be the villain, and of course Batgirl, Huntress, and Black Canary will all be around. Expect something akin to Suicide Squad‘s tone with some slightly different vibes due to the strong female presence in the cast.
WONDER WOMAN 84 (2020)
We know a few key details: We know it’s set in the mid-80s, with Diana tangling with the Soviet Union. We know Cheetah is involved. We know Chris Pine somehow makes a return despite being killed seventy years earlier. Most importantly we know Patty Jenkins is back to direct after helming the DCEU’s first real blockbuster. Though it will probably, officially, connect to the wider universe of movies, the film is being described as a relatively stand-alone film, without knowledge of other movies needed to be understood.
THE BATMAN (2021)
This almost certainly is a reboot. The dramatic age difference between the older Bruce/Batman in Justice League and the younger Batman of this movie, as well as the modern setting that will be applied to it, make it almost impossible for it to be a sequel to the movies already released. It’s safe to say, no matter how good Affleck looked in the suit, WB’s most recent version of Batman will be remembered in a pile next to Clooney and Kilmer more than Keaton and Bale. New Batman Robert Pattinson is expected to be more of a detective akin to Jeff Loeb’s Batman, as opposed to the more ruthless Frank Miller-like Batman of Affleck’s character. I say bring on the World’s Greatest Detective.
SUICIDE SQUAD 2 (2021)
The original Suicide Squad was sort of a bizarro-Shazam! in that it made a lot of money but no one seemed to like it. After several sequel writers fell through, WB scooped up James Gunn during his short hiatus from Disney. Gunn wrote the screenplay to the movie as a hard-reset to the franchise, eventually signing on to direct. The two most notable characters from the first, Joker and Harley are either getting alternate-universe movies or spin-off films of their own, so don’t expect them here; this is the perfect time to pretend like the first one didn’t happen and just start fresh.
Still to come?
Aquaman 2 will surely happen in 2022, and a Flash movie has been in the works since all of this started. Man of Steel 2 will surely happen one day, with or without Henry Cavill, and a Green Lantern movie will get made eventually too, I have to believe. The longer WB is away from Zack Snyder’s very idiosyncratic and contested style, the better and brighter the studio’s prospects are. They just need to avoid going the way of Fox and the X-Men movies and not follow up a boring movie with an even more boring movie and destroy the last shred of dignity your comic book universe has left.
More on that, in the next article…